Tell me if this sounds familiar. Lately, you’ve noticed that you haven’t taken time as team to slow down and really think through issues or new ideas. I don’t mean the “let’s get this urgent problem solved quickly” kind of thinking, but the intentional pause that allows for a range of new ideas beyond the norm. Perhaps you’re not taking enough time in the stop-gap problem solving sessions to consider ideas that stretch your thinking outside of the immediate issue. You hear about innovative companies doing interesting things, and wonder where they find the time to think.
Thinking is the top level of Actionable’s Engaged Employee Pyramid, and for good reason: it builds on each level below it, and is a critical skill that isn’t optimized unless other elements below it (like communication and team effectiveness) are working well first.
Looking to implement a major change in your organization? Struggling to pivot after a big mistake or change in the market? Combining teams with disparate cultures as a result of a merger or acquisition? Starting a new project and want to get the team aligned?
You need agile, innovative thinkers to pull it off.
These kinds of high-level conversations can be tricky, and so a framework is tremendously helpful. Building a strong foundation of the lower levels of the pyramid is a great place to start. It’s also important to frame these discussions around organizational objectives, not individual contributions.
If you’re discussing a recent mistake, for example, the people responsible for the error may feel defensive about their decisions, and shut down as a result. Shifting from talking about the issue to talking about the thing (the system, the approach, the workflow), allows individuals to step back from their personal feelings about the issue, and think through challenges as they relate to the organization.
Thinking at this level also allows for individuals to micro-innovate—to contribute small, incremental improvements, that add up to change over time. Micro-innovation shifts the focus of change—it is no longer something that “other people” do, but rather something each of us can do, in a small way, each day. This is an extension of the self-management level of the pyramid. Individuals who feel empowered to manage themselves will feel more comfortable suggesting and implementing changes that have a positive impact on the organization as a whole.
At this level of thinking, there are also opportunities for individuals to align themselves with the organization’s objectives (or for individuals to speak freely and align the organization with their perspective). This is especially helpful when managing change, as it presents opportunities for feedback and buy-in.
This kind of thinking is possible at Actionable because we work hard to practice what we preach. We have ongoing, regular conversations to ensure that each team member feels strong in their role and our culture, is empowered to manage themselves, and works with a team that communicates effectively.
At our recent staff retreat, we used the World Café format to think through the major challenges Actionable is facing. In preparation for the retreat, three main objectives were defined and clarified, and then three questions for each bucket were posed. After some initial framing, the staff split into small groups, and circled around the rooms to spend twenty minutes brainstorming potential solutions. When everyone had passed through each room, we split up again, this time according to department, expertise, or interest, to synthesize all of the brainstorming and come up with action plans.
Using this framework allowed us to maximize the collective brainpower of the group, and approach challenges from a high level. Furthermore, all of our thinking was aligned to the core objectives of the business, so we were able to move beyond our individual concerns, and think about how our work fits into the big picture.
We also talked a lot about our organizational structure as more of a lattice than a ladder. “Flat organizations” are in style these days, and while Actionable strives to avoid hierarchies as much as possible by keeping all lines of communication open across departments and team members, “flat” isn’t quite the right word. Instead, we envision our structure as a lattice, with opportunities for movement up and down, side to side (across departments), and every which way in between.
To be capable of this type of thinking, individuals, teams, and organizations need to plan for regular, ongoing, meaningful conversations. There are no shortcuts: like so many other things in life, we can only see results after sustained action.
Innovative, agile thinking is a critical element that managers want from their teams, and for good reason. When teams are aligned and thinking at a high-level, magic can happen. But this is varsity-level work. If you haven’t mastered the basics, you will struggle to reach this level.